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Are you giving a restaurant a fair review?

Is it fair to go in to a restaurant with expectation based on reviews and then either not be impressed or worse yet, be disappointed? Are you being completely objective and non-partial or is your judgment somehow affected by your expectations.

Is it the same thing as watching a preview of a movie and then rating the actual movie as so-so because you already knew of the good parts from the trailer?

While I do not subscribe to my friends theory that, "if you lower your expectation, you will never be disappointed", I am interested in hearing thoughts from fellow chowhounds.

Is there a strategy that some of you are using which helps you in not getting caught up in the hype or rave reviews of a place and merely enjoying the place for what it is when you go out?

Any feedback is appreciated. Thanx.

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  1. Easy for me. I believe all reviewers have an agenda.

    If I want a good overview of a restaurant, I come here or go to Yelp.

    Then I try it out for myself, at least twice, and since I never lie, I always believe me in the end.

    1. I don't think anybody can be completely objective and non partial when it comes to food. It's not a science experiment (and even with science experiments, biases can play a role). I TRY to be unbiased as much as possible. If something didn't meet my expectations, I'll say that it wasn't as good as I've heard about. I remember being disappointed by my first In n Out experience. It's been so hyped that I thought it was going to be like an orgasm in my mouth. It's a good fast food burger, but by no means life-altering. On the SF and LA boards, I have seen visitors talking about how they have to squeeze In n Out in their already stuffed itinerary because they've heard so much about it. After that experience, I try to not have any expectations and try to enjoy the food for what it is. DH, however, tends to get more disappointed if he's read a lot of good reviews. For example, after seeing Bourdain say he's had the best pig ever at Ibu Oka in Bali, he was determined to go there. So we did. All he kept talking about on the plane was that pig. I thought it was outstanding. DH, while he loved it, wasn't convinced that it was the best pig in the world. I think he had built it so much in his head that he was disappointed. I think he expected the pig to rise up from the spit and dance or something -- because it was really really good! He was also disappointed by Eleven Madison Park's famed suckling pig as well because he's heard so much about it. We're flying cross-country next month because we were able to score reservations at the French Laundry. We're going for a weekend, but we basically planned the trip around FL. So there's a lot hinging on this one meal. I keep telling him and myself not to get too excited over this meal. I think being cognizant of it helps, but as human beings, we all have some sort of expectations.

      1. A review is just one person's opinion. I usually don't read them at all (I don't live in a place where people review a lot of the restaurants!), but I prefer to make up my own mind about a place. My expectations have more to do with what the place looks like, what's on the menu, how the place smells, how friendly/knowledgeable the waiters are, and lots of other clues.

        But as far as reviews go, it also depends on who's doing the reviewing. If it's a friend whose taste I know well, that means more to me than what Frank Bruni says. Of course, someday I may find out that Bruni and I have similar taste, but at the moment his opinion wouldn't have that much weight compared to other factors.

        If you're really concerned about getting too caught up with reviews (and I think a lot of people depend way too much on others' opinions about what they eat), I'd strongly suggest not reading/listening to them.

        1. This question has come up on another board, too. There's a restaurant that consistently gets great reviews that I tried and was disappointed. I was told my expectations were too high, by fans of the restaurant (to be expected, I guess, going against CW) and that restaurants aren't always going to provide a "wow" experience--though for me, spending $300+ per couple should be a "wow" experience.

          On the same lines, if you eat at excellent restaurants then you're also going to compare anything new to your experiences. When you come down to it, it's always going to be subjective and "fair" is in the eye of the beholder. How much you've enjoyed the food, regardless of baggage, is what counts. One of the best meals I've had is a can of sardines and loaf of fresh bread when I was exhausted, interrailing through Europe in college.

          1. I typically don't read reviews of restaurants that I go to. In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl talked about the newspaper's perception of their intended readership. She no longer focused on the reader who would be likely to go to the restaurant; instead, she provided a review that was aimed at the person who likely wouldn't go there. After all, the readership of the times is much broader than the number of people who could fit into an of these places or for that matter the number of people who could afford to go there. Her writing was designed to be a virtual experience of a restaurant. In retrospect, that's not an ideal preparation to go.

            I read reviews most often in that spirit, escapist fiction. I read the Times Reviews, Jonathan Gold, even occasionally Chicago Tribune's reviews, knowing that I am extremely unlikely to go to these places.

            As for local reviews, they have a less concealed agenda, and the writing is typically pretty poor, and one review looks much like another. I look around for better blogs (or chowhound) instead. There's often less of a buildup because even raves rarely lavish the minute detail of a well-crafted review.

            1. I believe by definition reviews of anything aren't objective (or intended to be). It's one person's opinion and you (general) need to consider the source and determine if it's credible or not.

              And as we see on Chowhound (and in life) different people have different expectations and different deal breakers.

              I try to use a combination of sources whenever possible and locally I have friends whose opinions I give more weight to than others. I have one friend who hates to wait so being seated immediately is her litmus test. I figure if I'm not waiting at peak time (without a reservation) something is most likely amiss.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Janet from Richmond

                >>reviews of anything aren't objective (or intended to be).

                But isn't it the 'job' of the newspaper restaurant reviewer to be impartial and to not be biased by who is buying advertising space in their magazine or newspaper?

                I've found out differently, and no longer believe a word I read.

                1. re: dolores

                  Impartial IMO is different from objective. Obviously they should not be bought off (and in the case of my local newspaper's reviewer I definitely believe they are not impartial) but every person's 'critieria' of what makes a restaurant worthy is different. That's human nature.

                  1. re: Janet from Richmond

                    Exactly, Janet. That's why, given a restaurant review and even given all the helpful reviews from people here who live to eat, the final analysis (based on at least two visits) is still in the mouth of the person at the keyboard.

              2. I read a lot of reviews and ask around about a place before I go, but I realize that we are all different in our expectations, and that counts for a lot. We each have our individual "buttons" that get pushed, which makes us give a good or bad review, whether it be to our friends or in a public forum. So many things factor into the equation, such as your server, the timing, the food, the crowd, or lack of one, and it could be a great place on the first of June, but on July first it is really not so good. There are a couple local reviewers that I like, but they may have gone on a really good or bad day, so I have to take it with a grain of salt, and make my own decisions. Looking at local forums, like this one, is good, as well, but again you have to try it yourself. I went to a particular place for a certain seasonal dish which was highly recommended by local forums, citysearch, B4-U-eat, etc. It must have been an off night because we were not as impressed as the others were, but I will try again. It's like asking a person if that movie was good, and they rave about it. Then you see it and are appalled. We have a running joke that if my in-laws like it (movies, books, or restaurants) then we know for SURE we won't! So if you tell me that so and so has the BEST burger in town, and I try it, and it doesn't meet my criteria, then I won't ask you again, or if I do I will be very specific about what like in a burger! A whole lot of hype doesn't make the place, it's the total experience that you have when you go.

                1. A review like a dish should be taken with or without a grain of salt. How can a reviewer be objective and not personal. Is the food spicy? personal. presented well? personal. timing? personal. decor? somewhat personal.

                  Should a review take the form of a menu description? that is the only way to have it impartial.

                  jfood is looking for the descriptive elements when he reads a review (whether on CH, other sites or in the newspaper) to get a general feel for the place. Then he goes to the restaurant to enjoy the meal and discuss the elements with mrs jfood. they differ often on various dishes and places. And then jfood reviews the good and the needs improvement.

                  The idea of bucking the trend at professional reviewers favorites or CH board darlings does not concern jfood. he has written what he thinks about a restaurant on the night he experienced the restaurant. Yes, they may have a bad night and jfood has gone to great lengths to chat with the restaurantthat may be a darling where he had a bad experience. And he has found that 100% of the time, the discussion with the manager was a positive for both sides.

                  So in the end jfood looks at reviews written by others before he goes, but at the end of the day, it is what he likes that he writes about and what mrs jfood likes that she discusses with him.

                  Does jfood get caught up in the hype? Sure, and that nirvana may last for five minutes or for the entire meal once jfood arrives and is seated. Then he starts to enjoy the meal versus the hype. Sometimes he agrees, sometimes he does not.

                  Are the reviews impartial, no, they are personal.

                  1. Restaurant reviewers, like any other critics, have their own tastes and standards. This is true of both professionals and the many amateurs who post on Chowhound, Egullet, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.

                    For me the key is to identify the critics (both amateur and professional) whose tastes seem to be most analogous to my own, and to use them as one resource in determining whether or not to try a new place (or where to eat in an unfamiliar city). If that's not possible - when I'm on the road, for example - I try to get some general sense of what sounds good by reading a number of different responses on the boards and looking for a general consensus; I've found some terrific restaurants in places like Winslow, AZ, and Buffalo, WY that way.

                    I always try to keep my expectations reined in because hardly anything is ever as good as one's fantasies (a good general rule of life, IMHO), and try to enjoy my dining experience wherever I go. As a rule, that's worked out pretty well.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Striver

                      I also try to find a critic whose views seem to coincide with mine. Here in Toronto, we are lucky enough to have four daily papers. One has a food critic who actually went to cooking school in France decades before it became trendy; her reviews focus not only on the food, but also on the atmospheric extras (do they offer to take her coat, the attitude of hosts/hostesses, noise levels, etc.) that make the difference between a great night out and an unpleasant experience. Another has a "critic" who seems so delighted at getting a free meal she never criticizes anything. Guess whose reviews I tend to pay attention to?